Nearly six decades after rock ‘n’ roll began weaving itself into the fabric of American life, detractors continue to denounce the music as the essence of decadence or as the vulgar spewing of adolescent hormones and rebellion. All the more reason, then, to acknowledge that rock is the perfect vehicle for reinvigorating Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, a decadent tragedy ignited by adolescent passion and fury, or a better fit than Broadway musical remakes of Puccini’s La Bohème and Madama Butterfly, can we agree? Presented for the first time in the Carolinas at the Belk Theater by the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, the 2007 Tony Award winner for Best Musical was more than combustible enough in its touring version to yield a backfire of shocked gasps and teen titters throughout the evening. Opening night was also alive with the barbaric yawps indigenous to starry rock concerts.
Wedekind has a history with opera, notably with his Lulu plays of 1895 and 1904, turned into an opera by Alban Berg that he left incomplete at his death in 1935. Spring Awakening predates them all, written in 1891 and successfully premiered in 1905. But Spring Awakening was so coarse, so lewd, and so explicit in its depiction of teenage sexuality that it was banned in Great Britain until 1963. Music by Duncan Sheik, with book and lyrics of Steven Sater, deepens the hormonal rawness and the lyrical decadence. Add the sometimes punkish, sometimes graphic choreography of Bill T. Jones, and Spring Awakening still has ample power to shock in 2010.
Jones adds spastic punk-rock choreography to “The Bitch of Living” as Moritz and his classmates at the all-boys school chafe under the severe discipline of their Latin teacher. Movement is even more lurid as boys and girls rock to the clamor of their repressed fantasies in “My Junk” – with a gay student wildly simulating masturbation at the center of it all. Wendla, told by her mom that children come from a wife’s love for her husband, feels free to copulate with free-thinking Melchior, who actually knows better, as Act 1 ends with the anthemic “I Believe.”
The consequences of Melchior teaching Moritz the facts of life with graphic illustrations – and the consequences of his teaching Wendla with his actions – deepen the drama in Act 2. But while the overall tempo languishes, we’re still going to rock out when Melchior is nailed by school officials for his involvement in Moritz’s suicide and he realizes he’s “Totally F**ked.” Over and over, the friction between the constraints of adolescent life in 1890s Germany and the savage freedom of American rock music strikes dramatic sparks, baring the hearts of these teenagers and giving voice to their tormented souls.
Ballads aren’t nearly as electrifying as the raucous rock – with one notable exception, the deeply sensual “Word of Your Body,” tinged with a sadomasochistic refrain:
O, I’m gonna be wounded.
O, I’m gonna be your wound.
O, I’m gonna bruise you.
O, I’m gonna be your bruise.
Melchior and Wendla sing this to each other in Act 1. So does the gay Hanschen as he initiates Ernst in Act 2. Nor is the underlying sadomasochism completely metaphorical, for Wendla will demand that Melchior beat her with the same sort of switch that metes out discipline at school. It’s the one moment when Wandla – or anyone else – is able to shock the cosmopolitan Melchior.
Crossing the borderline between the centuries becomes a ritual as the schoolboys reach under their jackets and pull out microphones to break into song. Verisimilitude is never a goal in this expressionistic musical. Christine Jones’s scenic design is militantly anti-scenic: three imitation-brick walls enfold the stage, evoking the environmental setting of the original Broadway production, with a bunch of mirrors and period bric-a-brac hung on the walls, and a battalion of bare light bulbs dangling from the flyloft. A select few audience members sit in bleachers with cast members on either side of the stage, and an eight-piece band is encamped in front of the rear wall. The fourth wall is stretched but never broken: three steps descend from the lip of the stage, and the ensemble periodically gathers there to face the audience. But there is none of the mingling with the audience that we find in the communal Hair and numerous other mod musicals.
These antique characters aren’t ultimately like you and me, yet we often feel a fellowship with them. There is no credit given for hairstyling, yet both Moritzes that I’ve seen have sported the same shaven temples with devoutly piled-high punk hair in between; and while the school tyrants call each other Frau Knoopledick and Herr Knockenbruch, there is only a light sprinkling of Teutonic flavoring over the course of the evening. Beneath the British public school outfits designed by Susan Hilferty, we recognize these kids.
And we like them all. The role of Melchior catapulted Jonathan Groff to stardom, and Matt Shingledecker, an understudy for Groff on Broadway and Jake Epstein on the tour, had his chance to shine on opening night and excelled with his Patrick Swayze cuddliness. Taylor Trensch is a soft, youthful tangle of neurotic nerve endings as Moritz, all the way up to the tip of his frizzed crown, and Christy Altomare delivers all the innocence and passion of Wendla. The two seasoned veterans who feast on Knoopledick, Knockenbruch, and all the other adult roles, Angela Reed and John Wodja, are emblematic of the overall excellence of this touring production.